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Creating Community, Deepening Intention

by Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT level 3 candidate
Seattle, WA

One of the richest aspects of the PACT approach is the experiential, embodied nature of the sessions. Over the course of a 2- to 3-hour session, couples develop a felt understanding of one another and of a new way of relating. As a PACT practitioner, I am continually awed by the power of this approach to help couples reach new levels of connection and healing. In the last year, I began offering couple therapy intensives and retreats as two ways to multiply and deepen that experience over many hours on back-to-back days, and provide opportunities for PACT interventions on steroids.

In a call to me, Bess described through tears her love for her husband of 15 years, Theo, and the ways she had hurt him despite this love. Emotional infidelities had created fissures in the trust and safety of their connection, and both were questioning whether they could get it back. Because of the critical nature of their struggle, they decided to commit to an intensive, where they would spend 3 days in therapy and go deeper into the source of a very hurtful pattern. They would spend 7 hours each day in sessions, with long blocks for lunch. At night, they would continue to work on their connection through assigned exercises.

Jacob and Michael, married almost 30 years, came to therapy also on the verge of separation. Deeply entrenched habits of disconnection and avoidance had landed them in a place of bitterness and hostility. Early PACT sessions helped them clarify their intentions to stay together and their ownership of their respective contributions to their problems. Having learned new habits and acquired a better understanding of their wired responses, they signed up for a retreat my colleague Sara Slater and I developed as an opportunity to deepen their connection through a guided practice over a long weekend.

Through their intensive of 20 therapy hours over 3 days, Bess and Theo continually deepened their understanding and commitment to the process, learning things about each other that they had never imagined. That focused time alone with a therapist created safety to discuss very vulnerable and deeply personal mistakes in the relationship. With no downtime between sessions to distract from the process, they remained focused on repairing and rebuilding, and spent their evenings in powerful connection. Over the course of the intensive, Theo fully completed repair with Bess, and was honestly and deeply forgiven. Simultaneously, Bess came to a felt understanding of the ways she had betrayed and abandoned Theo, and was able to repair and develop ways of maintaining her care of him. By the end of the third day, they not only had a return to early feelings of love and interest in one another but had built on it with plans and agreements for maintaining their connection. Sitting with this couple for 3 days, I watched them fall back in love with each other, and they left looking younger, lighter, and more deeply connected in ways that can take much longer in traditional PACT sessions.

At our retreat, Michael and Jacob, together with five other couples, were led through a shared experience of exploration of each other and of their relationship, interspersed with relaxation and recreation. Sitting in circle with the community of couples—each in different phases of their relationship, with varied challenges—Michael and Jacob found a commonality of struggle in maintaining connection and desire through the hiccups and setbacks of life. Over the 3 days together in a bucolic setting, the experiential exercises and activities led them through a progressively deepening process, challenging them to further understand and work through the habits that had led to disconnection. These couples built a community of understanding and accountability through shared struggle and laughter, as well as the care offered for their common vulnerabilities. This allowed each couple to relax while breaking down barriers and deepening their commitments. In sessions following the retreat, Jacob and Michael had left behind their defensiveness and were able to regularly reach toward each other in ways I had not seen them do. Now, months later, they have found a level of intimacy and safety with each other that they never had before.

The opportunity to do intensive, sustained work in a residential retreat or therapy intensive creates a unique means of deepening connection that is very different from couple therapy sessions. Investing an entire weekend in a setting where the only focus is on each other and the relationship magnifies the awareness and presence in the work together. When I began offering retreats and intensives, I naively thought that just having more time with a couple would lead to greater rewards. Instead, I found that being in a setting away from life, the intention to commit to a substantial block of time and resources, and the process that unfolds over multiple days together combine to contribute to the greatest growth.

Secure-Functioning Essentials: Taking Care of Yourself and Your Partner at the Same Time

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

Many partners ask me how to take care simultaneously of themselves and of their partner. In practical terms, this can be difficult to carry off. Similarly, some couple therapists find it difficult to convey the principle of simultaneous care to couples they treat. This blog shows you how to incorporate this principle into your practice and your relationship.

First, we have a neurobiological reality to circumnavigate. Human beings are largely driven by self-interests, particularly when overtired, overstressed, or under-resourced, and even more so when threatened. When partners engage in conflict, it is vital to understand the tendency to mistake even a loved one as adversarial, or worse, predatory. The predisposition to error in this direction is a feature of the human impulse to survive. The brain centers responsible for mistaking a friend for a foe are famously expeditious, indiscriminate, and ruthless. This primitive facet of the mind and body is untamable; no amount of therapy will prevent most threat recognition from triggering a reflexive behavior. Though insecurely attached individuals (and those with unresolved trauma) are more likely to trigger easily and often, secure individuals are not immune to acting like the animals we all are. The smart thing for couple therapists to do is to work with this issue so couples can learn how to circumvent the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.1

It can be helpful for partners to think in terms of fire prevention and fire extinguishing. The therapist can help them become trained firefighters. See a glowing ember and put it out fast! Engulfed in a blaze, dump a lot of cold water everywhere! Eventually, the couple are guided toward becoming good stewards of their safety and security, and that begins and ends with the principles of taking care of the self and other at the same time. However, the therapist may have to triage fire extinguishing and prevention, and determine which is most urgent.

Insecure-functioning partners are inclined to take care of themselves only. One person takes a stand for himself or herself, while fully disregarding the other partner’s sensitivities, sensibilities, concerns, fears, wants, and historical injuries. Partners prime each other with dog-whistle-like behavioral cues that telegraph threatening intensions. An astute therapist can quickly detect these implicit signals prior to them becoming explicit. Video replay (if immediate) is sometimes helpful, though a rapidly kindled couple can become fired up with this technique. For these couples, the principle of self/other simultaneous care must come last in the treatment plan. They set too many fires and may “gladly” let them burn.2

The human capacity to cooperate and collaborate dates back to the beginning of the H. sapiens species, It’s in our DNA to share, bargain, trade, and keep the peace. Our species would have otherwise died out with the Neanderthals. Fairness is not a modern invention. For two autonomous individuals to get what they want and need, they have to ensure both parties benefit or they will get nothing but trouble. That stratagem must always be in play to keep the peace and to prosper. Neanderthals did not have the brain capacity to bargain, trade, or imagine win-win scenarios. We are, by contrast, supposed to have that capacity, and yet we seem to be Neanderthal in our love relationships!

The couple is the smallest unit of a social group. As such, it must operate under social rules if it is to survive. Though the couple represents a hierarchy with regard to children, its own structure is preferably egalitarian. So, if a couple seek real happiness, harmony, and freedom from chronic distress, they must be willing to care for themselves and each other at the same time, or suffer the consequences. A couple therapist cannot make a couple do this, but the therapist can and should expect nothing less.

If partners are good at fire extinguishing and becoming better at fire prevention, but could improve their skillfulness, the following exercise can be done during session. Video playback can be additionally helpful in giving the couple immediate feedback.

Here are the rules:

  1. A time frame is established.
  2. The partners must remain orderly and stick to one topic/subject only; refrain from talking over each other (too much); and keep the back and forth going, without one person holding the stage too long.
  3. Each partner must present his or her wish, fear, or complaint, along with his or her full understanding of the other’s wishes, fears, or complaints. Usually, the latter is best done before presenting one’s own agenda.3
    • If the topic involves a wish or want, partners must flow into bargaining mode (e.g., back and forth of suggestions, options, bids, offers). Neither partner can say no without making a counter offer or suggestion.
  4. Both partners are expected to pay close attention to both narratives, and explicit and implicit facial and gestural cueing. They are tasked with cross-checking what they hear with what they see and sense.
    • Partners must not become bogged down, or they will go down the rabbit hole toward threat (“You’re not happy.” “No, I’m fine.” No, you’re not.”).
    • Partners must not become distracted or derailed by their sensitivity to the other’s facial or gestural cues (“Why did you give me that look?” “I didn’t give you a look.” “Why are you being so snippy?”).
  5. The partners must achieve something at the end of the time limit, and both must ensure the other’s well-being by the end. They must finish as lovers, not business partners.
  6. There must be no residue of unhappiness, unless one partner is appropriately feeling down after accepting his or her own misdeed.

Before a couple can understand the principle of simultaneous self and other care, their therapist must fully understand and practice it himself or herself. Therapists shouldn’t expect clients to do what they cannot or won’t do themselves.

Can anyone apply this principle flawlessly at all times? Of course not. But this is a principle worthy of practice. It’s one of the best ways to prevent fires in our closest relationships.


  1. Some endogenous and exogenous strategies can dampen threat perceptions and responses. Regarding the former, 10 to 15 minutes of a mindfulness exercise known to increase parasympathetic tone can raise the threshold for a fight/flight response and increase recovery time. Additionally, some empirical clinical reports show response-time delays and lowered threat perception in individuals who are mildly under the influence of cannabis, CBD, MDMA, benzodiazepines, Kratom, or beta blockers. Obviously, a couple therapist cannot ethically recommend medications or street drugs.
  2. Some couples may be captured by a runaway noradrenergic, hypothalamic process they can’t overcome with conventional interventions. Noradrenaline is responsible for focus and attention. Highly kindled fight/flight reactions include hypervigilance and hyperfocus on a partner’s threat cues.
  3. The therapist should help the partners lead with relief (known in PACT terminology as disarming the partner’s “primitives” before proceeding).
  4. When one partner accepts having hurt the other, it is important to experience the pain. Just don’t wallow in it or make the hurt partner pay by withdrawing.

The Secure Family Asana

by Lon Rankin, LPCC, PACT faculty, Santa Fe, NM

Every species of mammal uses the limbic system—the social, emotional, relational part of the brain—to create strong bonds that provide safety and a felt sense of security. Adult-child bonding is especially crucial for the development of the complex human brain and nervous system, and the development of an internal felt sense of security in the world—both real and perceived. When parents are too often inattentive of their child’s emotional needs, this bonding does not happen optimally, and the injury of insecurity can prevail.

Memories, especially negative ones, are extremely powerful in influencing our perception of the world and our behaviors. Our subjective experience is colored by our past. All experiences, at any age, involving fear and threat are “velcroed” into the memory system in the interest of self-protection, but memories from childhood have particular potency. Children do not survive very long without parental attention and protection, and times of parental inattention, misattunement, and neglect are perceived as profoundly threatening. These memories become deeply wired into the brain and imprinted in the mind. (This is the basis for the value of inner child work in modern psychotherapy.) Many of the patients we work with are reacting from these often implicit and unconscious, velcroed threat memories and their activation, without proper awareness and attention from their partner.

PACT therapists understand the workings of this internal safety and security system, and the importance of this area in our work with couples. As PACT therapists, we motivate movement from projected, negative, internalized relational blueprints toward secure functioning within the primary partnership. In moving couples in this direction, we understand the importance of partners “holding each other in mind,” especially in these places of old injury. We ask them to take on the mantle of the attending parent in these areas of distress by holding their partner and their partner’s history in mind.

Toward this end, I often do the following exercise with my patients. My wife’s passion for yoga helped me envision this practice, so I affectionately call it the Secure Family Asana. (Āsana is a Sanskrit term to describe yoga postures that can promote change.)

At an appropriate place in a couple’s treatment, I invite them to sit face to face and interactively regulate each other. I have both partners imagine their arms around both their own inner child and their partner’s inner child (see Figure 1). I ask the couple to imagine being attentive parents to the places of childhood insecurity, and for this to be mutual, face to face and eye to eye.

Figure 1

 PACT Asana jpeg







Using this imagery and practicing it externally can promote the replacement of insecure blueprints within the procedural memory system. An internalized felt sense of comforting safety can then enhance secure functioning within the couple in times of distress, rather than the repetition of injury from the original memory patterns.

As PACT therapists, we know that secure functioning is characterized by a balance of valuing both self and the relationship. Therefore, we encourage couples to tend their own historical and present-time hurts, as well as be there for their partner’s hurts. Two strong, secure, internalized partners regulate these past injuries and their repetitive projected activations together. Old hurts are securely attended to in a mutual manner, rather than being allowed to take over and threaten the partnership.

This Secure Family Asana exercise embodies the tending of self and other, in both past and present. It encourages the healing of old hurts, and the growth of an internalized reparative family system. Couples can practice it to powerfully support their movement toward secure functioning.

Copyright Lon Rankin

Accelerating Development with PACT

by Jeff Pincus, LCSW, PACT faculty, Boulder, CO

Emotional development doesn’t happen in isolation. The entire field of psychotherapy rests upon the premise that one human being can help another to move beyond vestigial strategies developed in the context of the distant past and to live life in a way that is less encumbered by personal history. We consider this to be emotional or psychological growth. Part of the blessing of being human is that this process can be ongoing as we learn, grow, and continue to develop across our entire lifespan.

As a PACT therapist, PACT trainer, and husband who continues to put PACT principles to the test in my own marriage, I have been awed by the acceleration of development and maturation that occurs within a committed partnership when both parties co-create a foundation of secure functioning. This is the bedrock that PACT helps couples stand upon, and that supports a resurgence of development where there has been regression, idleness, and apathy.

Many models of couple therapy have merit. What sets PACT apart is its understanding about how the processes of emotional maturation, individuation, and differentiation actually occur. We are biologically wired for curiosity, creativity, and learning, but these functions can only take place when the experience of safety and security is online. When our safety and security are perceived to be at risk, our attention and behaviors are dominated by the tasks of mobilizing away from threat (fleeing), subduing danger (fighting), or shutting down (collapse). When processes organized around the drive for survival consume a relationship, couples stay in an immature state where there is no room for practicing and learning to occur. As clinicians, when we witness these behaviors in the therapy, we consider such ineffective strategies to be “acting out.”

Secure functioning both requires and facilitates each partner to develop emotionally, take pro-relationship risks with each other, and be collaborative. As PACT therapists, we expect this from our clients. We see their potential, and we are willing to push them when necessary so that they actually taste their capacity to be better. During a session, this may be in the form of directing them to reach out even when their instinctual impulse is to withdraw, to maintain eye contact when the habitual tendency is to gaze avert, or to say something loving when the reflex is to attack or defend.

Through such practicing, each member of the dyad risks shedding old, primitive defenses to become a more resilient and robust adult. Each takes greater responsibility for the current state of the relationship, and for moving it forward toward deeper satisfaction. This is true differentiation. PACT helps couples become their best adult selves in a relationship where growth and personal development are a natural outcome of love and commitment.

Copyright Jeff Pincus

Power Couples…Activate!

by Eva Van Prooyen, M.F.T., PACT faculty, Los Angeles CA

Healthy, secure relationships are a source of vital energy. PACT therapists know people feel good when they understand how to be successful partners. We are energized by a secure connection to another person. Our need to be securely attached is so powerful that it can get us through the hardest of times and help us float through day-to-day routines with ease, skill, and grace.

Secure functioning is based on a high degree of respect for one another’s experience. Interactions and shared experiences are fair, just, and sensitive. If your partner feels even slightly unwanted, undervalued, disliked, unseen, or unimportant, he or she will—quite frankly—act weird and underperform in the relationship.

Insecurity and insecure attachment negatively affect brain performance. Development can be slowed down because the brain is using most of its resources to manage being in survival mode instead of being free to move toward evolution, growth, and complexity.

In general, couples can get tripped up in creating a secure and healthy relationship and end up not liking their partners, situations, or experiences because they don’t know what to do or how to manage them. This can leave them feeling badly about themselves as well as their partner.

In line with the main treatment goals of PACT, couples are encouraged (and ultimately expected) to both know themselves and know their partner.  That is, to know who they are and how they move through the world, and also to understand who their partner is, and how he or she operates. To be clear, that is not how they wish their partner operates, but how their partner actually operates, navigates, and maneuvers through the world. This knowledge, which requires a healthy dose of curiosity and attention, creates a strong foundation of understanding. It pushes forth the secure-functioning principles that “your partner is your responsibility and in your care,” and “you are responsible for knowing how to manage your partner.” Your partner then holds a sacred and honored position no one else in the world gets to occupy. That said, we often joke that actual wedding vows should probably include, “I take you to be my perfect pain in the butt.”

PACT teaches couples how to manage their partners so they can move and shift them into better states of mind and moods; lower their stress level; and decrease their sense of threat, anxiety, and depression.

The idea of being responsible for knowing and caring for your partner in this way and putting the relationship first tends to be the hard sell for some couples. When you truly understand the benefits of adopting this idea, the stance of “but it’s always about them, it never gets to be about me” loses its power as an argument.

My answer is, “You do this because it serves you and is good for you. You get your needs met by shoring up the vulnerabilities in your partner so he or she can in return do the same for you. You both get the benefits of that investment.”

Love and genuine connection create libidinal energy—life force energy that can be renewed in an instant through a simple act of friendliness, a glance, a look, a moment, and a knowing that “my person likes me.” Part of creating a secure relationship is making sure you are helping your partner perform at an optimal level. To do that, messages that communicate “I’m good at you,” “I’m good at being with you,” and “You are in my care” must be reflected every day.

If you want to put this into practice, one way I encourage that is to pay attention to everything your partner hears you say about him or her. What messages are you conveying? Another thing you can do is to introduce your partner to other people, when you are together in public, in a way that is elevating.

PACT principles help couples enjoy the experience of being loved for who they are, as well as appreciate all the day-to-day benefits their relationship brings.

Copyright Eva Van Prooyen

Red Sky in the Morning, Sailors Take Warning

by Elaine Tuccio, LCSW, PACT faculty, Austin, TX

One of the most common complaints made by couples who come to therapy is that they feel they do not know how to communicate well with one another. The words “we have problems communicating,” or something along those lines, are often preceded or followed by a deep sigh—the signal of long-held misery and defeat.

The PACT therapist using the Partner Attachment Inventory (PAI) can obtain enough information within the first session to help a couple see that their problems are not simply communication. In fact, where couples tend to falter most is in reading signs and signals—the nonverbal cadence on which primary attachment relationships are built. Life’s forces have caused drift in their relationships. A mix of financial stress, betrayal, conflicting priorities of career and family, and addictions have thrown them into survival mode. As a result of early unmet developmental needs and attachment injuries, they find themselves at sea in their adult romantic partnership. Instead of smooth sailing, they tack too much or lean too little.

Consider Chuck and Tina, who are committed, loving parents to a child with cerebral palsy. In therapy, Chuck voiced frustration that his wife would not talk with him. Tina listened to every word as she held back tears, bit her lower lip, and wrung her hands, then stammered out words to defend herself. Both partners were clearly expressive, but in their own learned attachment style of communication. Tina’s parents had poured all their energy into their kids, but she couldn’t recall them talking at length with one another. They divorced when she was ten. Chuck’s father left when he was two. His doting mother never remarried, and he spent a lot of time alone in front of the television. The PAI helped this couple discover that neither was raised with examples of partners negotiating. This significant finding built hope for Chuck and Tina and helped them see that both wanted to communicate but they did not know how—yet.

Old-time sailors knew to be on the lookout for atmospheric changes, to stay in constant communication with their shipmates, and to point ahead always. As young sailors, they were guided by masters of the sea and learned to expect the best but plan for the worst, and leave nothing to chance. Not everyone entering a relationship is fortunate enough to be launched in a boat rigged for all sailing conditions. PACT therapists are trained to be master navigators at the helm. We help couples help themselves on rocky seas, in and out of narrow channels, and around sandbars. We teach them to distinguish between a red sky in the morning and a red sky at night so they can avoid storms that may be brewing and instead delight in life as it is—wonderful, unpredictable, painful, loving, beautiful, and forever changing.

Copyright Elaine Tuccio

Discovering New Steps to Shift a Couple’s Dance

by John Grey, Ph.D., PACT faculty, Berkeley CA,


Partners caught in ongoing distress lose sight of how to shift their negative dynamics. Although their dance could change if either made a small but significant move, neither seems to know a move to take things in a positive direction. So rather than acting from a sense of agency, each feels powerless and at the effect of the other.

From a PACT viewpoint, we maintain that each partner has the power to change their mutual dance. We know that, as primary attachment figures, they have a great deal of influence and hold a uniquely powerful position in each others’ brains. Each has the potential to sway the other in a new direction. Part of our work is to expand the repertoire each brings to the dance floor. We point out where they inadvertently step on each other’s feet and demonstrate in real time how a different move here or there relieves distress and helps them feel more connected.

PACT presupposes such moves can be made. In fact, we expect partners to make them and wonder, often aloud, why they don’t. Typically, each professes ignorance over steps to take that would reduce distress. Having no idea about what else to do, an avoidant husband yet again automatically backs away from his wife’s snarky remarks or harsh tone. Or she, acting out angry protest, doesn’t seem to know how to reach for him in a way that pulls him to her, so instead pushes him away.

In PACT, we assume they have it in them to take counterintuitive steps that will lead them to a secure dance. And, like a choreographer, we nudge them in that direction. We instruct them overtly, suggesting moves such as “Get closer, hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes….” There is also utility in assuming the moves already lie dormant within them, simply waiting to be awakened. I love to uncover hidden resources within partners by presupposing they already exist.

For instance, if they have kids and I already know they provide secure attachment responses to their children, I usually can bank on the mind-altering question “What would you do if this were your precious three-year old child ______?” filling in the blank with whatever behavior seems to be triggering (e.g., crying, throwing a fit, accusing you of being a bad parent, pulling away, hiding in his or her room).

I have been amazed to see how quickly this simple query can add new steps to the dance. For example, the avoidant husband above may move on his own initiative toward his angrily protesting wife and feel renewed strength, empathy, value, and importance as he holds her, reassures her, and calms her—a move he usually made with his daughter, but never conceived of with his mate. At this point, discussing how a younger part of the brain takes us over is often a useful way to strengthen the probability of future caring responses.

It can be profitable to assume people have the inner resources for positive change, but don’t yet quite realize how to hook these up and enact them. Dormant brain circuitry can be plugged in, reweighted, and brought online in their partnership. PACT operates from these kinds of powerful presuppositions. We assume each partner has the power and ability to have a positive impact in their dynamic. We realize how important each is to the other’s brain once they have been elected to the post of primary attachment figure. Knowing infant-caregiver attachment research, we realize the power of the moves partners can make once they fully realize they are in each other’s care. Like patient choreographers, we keep nudging them to dance more securely together.

Copyright John Grey